Context Makes Old Family Journals and Letters Resonate

Maybe you’re interested in sharing letters exchanged during World War II or a farmer’s journal from the nineteenth century—or even a story or experience from your own memory.

Our world is changing so fast that even stories from ten or twenty years ago begin to lose context as technology and society evolve. If things keep pace, future generations will benefit from your insights as you share what life was like for you or your ancestors.


Whether we’re reading fiction or nonfiction, we sometimes need additional information to fully understand a story set in another place and time.

When I was a child, I loved the Little House series of books. I still do!

Imagine my dismay when I read a blog post by a mother whose children were traumatized by events portrayed in Little House in the Big Woods. I was sorry those children didn’t enjoy reading about Laura and Mary as much as I had. I wrote my own blog post in reply:

We all want to shield our children from things that frighten them. Unfortunately, there seems to be no letup to the tragedies and disasters that give us all nightmares.

We may seek escape from the events of the day in books, especially books set in other times.

In my last post, I mentioned some comments from parents who said they censored the Little House books when they read them aloud because reading about butchering a pig or shooting a deer was distressing to their children.

There is plenty of scary stuff in the Little House books, and we never know what will frighten a child. I hope the mom in question took the opportunity to explain that there were no supermarkets in the Big Woods when Laura and Mary were little. In this case, it’s important to give context to the details.

My own daughter spent her childhood traveling to various historic parks with her dad’s vintage base ball team. Her dress-up clothes included historically accurate outfits from the mid-19th century. She watched Civil War re-enactments, drank sarsaparilla and took horse and carriage rides.

But she still needed help to understand some things. When she was three years old, we went to Slate Run, a working 19th century farm that’s part of Columbus Metro Parks. My girl pointed at the outhouse and asked, “Is that where the horses and cows go potty?”

Scary? In its own way, yes.

It never bothered me to read about Pa shooting a deer or butchering a pig because I understood in that time and that place, it was necessary for the family’s survival.

It bothers me far more when my husband’s aunt talks about it being her job to help her father skin the rabbits he’d shot so they’d have meat on the table. That was the 1950s.


Ahh, the 1950s…

“I remember when we got our first television. It was a big deal! But my dad owed some people money, and he didn’t want them to know he’d spent it on a tv, so he set up the antenna inside the attic.”

What context clues would you need to give a child so they’d understand my father’s story?


A person’s speech patterns and grammar can give clues to when and where they lived and how much education they had. Voice is found in a person’s writing, too—especially in their correspondence. The expressions and slang of the past are very different from ours, just as one day our descendants will think our slang is quaint and outdated.

“We were between hawk and buzzard about whether to stay in this place.”

 Any guesses what my ancestor meant by that?

It’s important to preserve your subject’s voice by reproducing their letters as written. Don’t change spelling or punctuation. If necessary, add context clues as sidebars or footnotes to help readers understand what was meant.

In the past, letters, especially those sent home from war, were treasured keepsakes. Now we dash off a quick text or email that’s just as quickly read and deleted.

Let’s take a look at letters written over 150 years ago by two Ohio Civil War soldiers, Sluman Abel of Portage County and Wallace Chadwick of Hamilton County.


 Letter written by Sluman Abel, aged 23

Ohio 39th Volunteer Infantry


Columbus April 9 1865


Dear Brother and Sister I take my pen in hand to let you know how we prisoners are a-getting a long we are all well and enjoy our Selves well I suppose it is Sunday in old portage it is fourth of July here The Band is a-playing and so are the conscripts we have our Rations cooked both and served in slop pails by the Sambos we have a plenty of bread and meat and coffe but no milk or butter Sambo sais Uncle Sam’s cows haint come in yet we are in Foul[?] Barracks there is some two thousand boys here they is some two hundred drawing their rations to leave to day We leave to morrow at half past two in the after noon for unknown but we think that we are a going to Tennissee

I am glad of it any place but this I have wore a hole through my bunk with my hip bones I am all right the Surgen stuck a awl in my arm yesterday morning I feel better than when I left home good bye don’t write untill you hear from me give my respects to all your soger Boy

Sluman W. Abel


Letter written by Wallace William Chadwick, aged 29

138th Ohio Volunteer Infantry


North Mountain, May 19, 1864

 Dear Wife,

 Our situation might be a more pleasant one than it is, but I do not know that it is critical. We are stationed about a mile northwest of North Mountain station. Sigel had a battle at New Market on Sunday and I understand was repulsed. His wounded have been going west which, I take, is a good omen as regards defeat, for if he was badly whipped he couldn’t take care of the wounded.


We are near the above-named station on the line of march of Bank’s retreat. His main force retreated by Martinsburg, which is seven miles from here. Martinsburg is twenty-five miles from Winchester, and Winchester forty miles from New Market. There are five or six regiments near us, but we are not as well off for ammunition as I would like and could do but little fighting.

A large train of wounded passed here this morning which proves conclusively to me that Sigel’s line of communication is all right. There is a rumor in camp that Sigel turned on them and whipped them, which is his style of fighting, but as you get the papers you are better posted on the successes and reverses of our armies than we are, and I hope you will give yourself no uneasiness. The boys from our neighborhood are all well. We have our pickets out, but everything is in the dark yet. All are in the best of spirits. I feel myself as good as any one rebel and I hope all the boys feel the same way. We feel no alarm, but things look like war.

 Write often and I will do the same. My love to yourself and the babies and compliments to all inquiring friends.



What do we glean from each of these letters?

What can we discern about the two men’s lives and circumstances?

Chadwick is writing to his wife, and his letters may have a more personal tone than Abel’s, which is written to his sister and brother-in-law.

Chadwick appears more eloquent, and his perfect spelling suggests he was much better educated. We could also assume he was rich, while Abel was of more humble origins.

But we can’t be sure.

Here’s an important difference between the two letters. I transcribed Abel’s original letter without changing his spelling or fixing punctuation, but I have no way to know whether Chadwick’s letter had been edited. Some well-meaning descendant might have “fixed” the spelling and grammar while transcribing the letter.

If you have original letters or other handwritten documents, resist the urge to edit spelling. It’s better to put notes or explanations in brackets. […]

It can be tricky to decipher old handwriting. Use the process of elimination. Find a word you recognize and take a look at the strokes of each letter. Sometimes it helps to trace a word with your finger.

Here is a scan of Sluman Abel’s letter:


How to you add context to your story?

Talk to the person who wrote the letter or journal, if you can. Elderly relatives may have very clear recollections of the events you’re interested in, and then again, they may not. You might want to record your interviews.

In my current project, I’m including a section about my ancestral family home, which was built in the 1840s. When the current owners graciously gave me a tour a few years back, they talked quite openly about the ghosts of soldiers who appear in the house.

That was super cool—and I wanted to know more, so I contacted my dad’s aunt and asked if she had any ghost stories of her own. She would have visited her aunt there when she was a child.

She claimed no knowledge of any soldier ghosts in the house. I was so disappointed!

Fast forward a few years. . .My parents and I visited Aunt Nonie at her assisted living facility last fall. She wanted to make a copy of her grandfather’s obituary from the newspaper for me to take home. As she brought out the family Bible, she said matter-of-factly, “That’s why the house is haunted, you know.”

Whaaaa? All of a sudden, she remembered, and corroborated the current owners’ story about the resident spirits.

If you don’t have access to an Aunt Nonie, you can still add depth to your project.

Google is your friend!

There are millions of documents and images that can be included in your project.

If you prefer doing your research in the real world, local historical societies are always willing to help. They love to talk about history, too!

If your story is recent, you might do an online search for news stories or articles.

Happy Hunting!!


How To Get Started Researching Old Letters or Documents

1) Read the document all the way through a couple of times and make note of any unfamiliar words or phrases. Then look up the unfamiliar words online. Once you understand everything in the proper context, the document will be that much more meaningful.

For example, last fall I was transcribing some letters for a client that were written during World War II. The soldier who wrote the letters had been stationed at Camp Ritchie in Maryland for military intelligence training. He made reference to “Ban Day”, and I had no idea what that meant. When I read about the camp, I discovered that Ban Day was the camp’s official day off, named after Brigadier General Charles Y. Banfill, who set up the camp on an 8-day cycle, so everyone’s day off was on Sunday the first week, Monday the second week, etc. Earthshattering? Nah. But it’s fun to discover those little bits of trivia.

2) Go through the document and list all the people, places, and things. Then do a Google search for each noun, and record your findings. It’s okay to do the easy ones first.

My initial research for Fips, Bots, Doggeries, and More focused on broad topics like the National Road and canal systems, nineteenth-century water mills, and frontier medicine. Eventually, like peeling an onion, I was able to discover details that I considered minutiae —like the street address of a dressmaker in Trenton, New Jersey, the name of an innkeeper at a roadside tavern in Maryland, or the name of the minister who preached in a particular church in Columbus, Ohio on a particular Sunday in August, 1838. I was surprised and pleased that I could confirm with such detail the information in a document that was over 160 years old at the time.

3) Consider subscribing to Even if you aren’t searching for long-lost relatives, Ancestry has a huge collection of digitized books and other documents that will facilitate your research.

4) Take careful bibliographical notes. Even if you think you’re just researching for fun, it’s best to assume you’ll need that bibliographical data again. It’s a pain to back track and try and re-locate your sources! If you’re doing research online, you might set up a Pinterest board to keep track of any websites you visit.

5) Find out what was going on in the larger world at the time. I use as an example the letter written by my Sluman Abel, my great-great grandfather, on April 9, 1865, which is the day Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. Sluman had no idea that the war was over. In his letter, he tells his sister and brother-in- law that he expects to be leaving camp in Ohio for someplace in Tennessee within the week. That knowledge certainly adds depth to the overall research experience.

Evaluate your document in relation to the events of the day, and determine if the information you have is significant enough to publish it for a larger audience. For example, I read over some letters written by a German-born Jew, who was then an American citizen and soldier, who was stationed at Dachau concentration camp after the surrender in 1945. His job as part of an intelligence unit was to interview prisoners of war and translate documents. His letters to his fiancée were intriguing, and because of the obvious connection to major world events, could be considered historically significant.

My great-great-great grandfather’s travel journal, penned in 1838, wasn’t full of high drama or earthshattering events. But it, too, is historically significant, as a first-person account of life in America during the beginnings of the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. His travels took him from a city in the relatively new state of Ohio, through developing cities, quiet villages and rural areas, over mountains, and into the old cities of Philadelphia and Trenton. When I first read the journal, I hoped it would become the basis for a book, but it took many years to figure out how best to present the information.

6) It’s possible to do comprehensive research online, but don’t ignore the opportunity to go on field trips as part of your research experience. Historical societies, county courthouses and libraries can be treasure troves that house will abstracts, county maps that show who owned which parcel of land, newspaper archives, and books that detail the histories of communities and their prominent citizens. Many historical societies have researchers and librarians on staff who can assist you.

7) Understand terms that are offensive in the context of the day. Early in Henry Rogers’ travel journal, he made reference to a mill dam that was made of “n—- heads.” Oh my! It was distressing to imagine what he meant by that. To make matters worse, I was conducting that research in the days before the Internet—so I had to write a letter or make a call to ask about the offensive term. I couldn’t just Google it in the privacy of my home.

Fortunately, I found an understanding millwright at a working 19th century mill who knew the term referred to granite stones that were blue/black in color.

Please don’t be upset if your sainted antebellum ancestor uses the “n” word or some other un-PC terms in their correspondence. My ancestor used it to describe people, but not in a derogatory sense. It was an acceptable term at the time, even for a man who, within ten years of writing that journal entry, was a member of the anti-slavery Liberty Party, and was involved in the Underground Railroad movement. Treat it as evidence of the changing nature of our language and our society.

8) How does what you learned relate to your family now? What kind of dialogue will it inspire? What kind of memories will it create? Consider creating a website or blog to chronicle and publish your findings.